Burnt Offering: Tisha B’av. Chapter 12, “Seasons of our Joy”
Burnt Offering: Tisha B'av. Chapter 12, "Seasons of our Joy"
By Rabbi Arthur Waskow | 9/8/2001
Rabbi Arthur Waskow
From SEASONS OF OUR JOY
By Rabbi Arthur Waskow
Copyright © 1980 by Arthur Waskow.
Published by Beacon Press.
[return to Tisha B'av Section]
The rhythm of the seasons as a spiritual path and the spiritual history and meaning of each festival are described in the chapters of this book.
Here they can be seen and heard in each of the Four Worlds of reality:
the actual details of celebration, including the different sensuous delicious foods and recipes for the different festivals;
the emotional sense of communal celebration and familial memory and hope;
their intellectual meanings in history and in the dance of earth and moon and sun;
and how each one beckons us into a sense of union in the Spirit.
Here we make available that festival which reminds us of the doorway between the Judaism of the Bible and the Judaism of the Rabbis — Tisha B'Av, our memorial for the burning of the Temple. In our own earthquake era, when the macrocosmic earth itself is in the danger of our burning, Tisha B'Av may be especially filled with meaning for us.
With blessings for finding joy in every festival —
Rabbi Arthur Waskow
Seasons of Our Joy can be ordered through The Shalom Center by clicking onwww.shalomctr.org/html/resource01g.html.
CHAPTER TWELVE: BURNT OFFERING: TISHA B'AV
It is the heart of summer: hot as a furnace, dry as the tomb. A shower, a breeze are forgotten memories. The earth is panting in exhaustion — almost as if the birthing of her harvest has gone awry, as if the birth-pangs will go on forever but there will be no fruit.
And people are exhausted too; their freshness and fertility, warmed and renewed by the sun of spring, has wilted as the sun grew still hotter. We feel burnt out.
The whole world is being put to the torch. On such a scorching summer day God's holy house on earth was burnt. The Temple in Jerusalem — microcosm of the holy Earth — was put to the torch by Babylon, by Rome. The Great Powers of their day, the empires ruled by Sun Kings, had from a distance, pulsed new energy into the simmering Jewish culture. But now that energy came far too close, turned into a raging fire. The Temple collapsed in flames, the people shattered into slavery and exile.
But we know that this moment of exhaustion and destruction is but a moment. We know that the earth passes safely through its too-hot exposure to the sun, that the crops coming to fruition in the fields do not bum up, that we will have a harvest and store the heat to keep us warm in winter.
We know that our own eyes, blinded by the glare of the year's noonday, will once again be able to see clearly. We know that the Jewish people will harvest something new in exile, will harvest its shattered, scattered selves into a reunited holiness.
But to do this we need to experience fully the moment of burn-out, the moment of fire and thirst. And this the tradition does with Tisha B'Av — the ninth of the month of Av, the day that mourns for the destructions of the Temple (and the day set aside for the birth of Messiah, the beginning of redemption).
Twice the Temple was destroyed — once by order of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, in 586 B.C.E. — and again by Vespasian, a general of the Roman Empire, in 70 C.E.
On neither occasion did the actual destruction come on the ninth of Av. The Talmud (Taanith 29a) shows that the rabbis (writing after the Second Destruction) were puzzled by the fact that II Kings and Jeremiah give different dates for the First Destruction. One gave the seventh, one the tenth of Av. The rabbis insisted that the anomaly be cleared up and concluded that the Temple was captured by the Babylonians on the seventh, put to the torch on the ninth, and consumed by the fire on the tenth.
The very anxiety of the rabbis to justify the date of Tisha B'Av might be taken to support a theory of some modem scholars that the date was partly affected by the religious patterns of Babylon. Among the Babylonians, the ninth of Av was a day of dread and sorrow, a climactic moment in a month-long celebration focused on torches and firewood. (Perhaps this Babylonian holy season also had to do with midsummer and a sense of the raging sun.) Once the Jews had gone into the Babylonian exile, in seeking to commemorate the day of their disaster they may have chosen the fiery day already set aside by the Babylonians around them — the day whose date was so close and whose fiery significance echoed so well with the burning of the Temple. When the Babylonian captivity ended and Jews returned to the land of Israel, they preserved the memorial day of Tisha B'Av — even though the prophet Zechariah said that God wanted them to live so justly that it could be made a festival of peace and joy.
After the Second Destruction — itself on the tenth of Av — the rabbis went further to legitimate the date and meaning of Tisha B'Av. They looked far back in Jewish consciousness — back to the second year of the Israelites' wandering in the wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt. They worked out a calendar of that year to show that on Tisha B'Av the people refused to enter the Land which God had promised to them. They refused in fear of the powerful nations that controlled the Land, a fear communicated to them by the spies whom they had sent to scout the territory.
And as they waited in fear, the Holy One not only commanded that they wander in the wilderness for forty years till all that generation died, but said to them: "You have wept without cause; therefore I will set [this day] aside for a weeping throughout the generations to come."
The rabbis added that on the ninth of Av in 135 C. E. the Romans captured the city of Bethar, the last stronghold of the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome. And on the ninth of Av one year later, Romans ploughed the site of the Temple so as to build there a pagan temple and a Roman city, and forbade Jews to enter the town that had been Jerusalem.
All these events — even the one in the wilderness of Sinai — are connected with exile from the land — with the burning desire of the people to feel once more at home. But the rabbis did not view the Destruction of the Temple as merely a military defeat, nor even as only a political and cultural disaster for the Jewish people. The Shechinah — God's very Presence — went into exile, they insisted. God's own Self was shattered, and the world itself was riven. The Biblical book they assigned to be read on Tisha B'Av — Eichah or Lamentations — carries this theme into the spiritual life of the people by asserting that for our sins was Jerusalem destroyed.
Tisha B'Av becomes a day not only to mourn the triumph of alienation, the loss of love and wholeness in the world, but to recognize our own complicity in that disaster. And the rabbis point up the lesson for all human beings. They take the word that begins the Book of Lamentations, "Eichah! — How lonely sits the city!" and the word that God howls out to Adam in grief and anger after the shattering of Eden: "Ayeka, where are you?"
These are the same word, they say — and indeed, in Hebrew they have the same root, only the vowels change. They are the same word, the rabbis say, because these two events are the same event. For Adam's was the first exile, the first alienation, the archetype of all loss ever since: the separation of the human psyche from God, the loss of utterly harmonious love. It is a loss burned into our consciousness by the flaming swords that burn and turn to bar our way to Eden.
How then do we experience this burning thirst — so fiercely as to learn the way to wellsprings? We learn it through a set of practices set forth by the tradition, beginning three weeks before Tisha B'Av and ending some seven weeks afterward, with Rosh Hashanah.
Three weeks before Tisha B'Av is the seventeenth day of the month Tammuz. According to the Talmud, it was the day on which the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem — and about a week distant from the day on which the Babylonians had done the same thing six centuries earlier. So it was the beginning of the end. It is a partial fast day — in which the fast is in effect only during the daylight hours.'
'A similar daylight fast, instituted for a similar reason but now observed in only the most traditional circles, is on the tenth of Tevet. On that day in 586 BCE the Babylonians began their siege of Jerusalem.
Just as the rabbis reached forward and backward in Jewish history to explain and reinforce Tisha B'Av, so they did with the seventeenth of Tammuz. They found that it was the date of the celebration of the golden calf and of Moses' breaking the tablets of the Ten Commandments — a day in which Israel's own sinfulness dominates the mood and colors history. By tying that tradition to the fall of Jerusalem, the rabbis reinforced the connection in the Jewish mind between internal failing and external defeat.
Beginning on the seventeenth of Tammuz, weddings are avoided until after Tisha B'Av. So are haircuts, buying or wearing new clothes, musical celebrations. A general atmosphere of somberness and self — examination is encouraged. The atmosphere colors even the three Shabbosim of these three weeks, for on each of them a Prophetic passage is read that warns of the destruction of Jerusalem and rebukes the people for choosing a destructive path of life. The first two passages are Jeremiah 1:1 -11:3 and Jeremiah II:4 -28 and I1I:4. The third — read on the Shabbat just before Tisha B'Av — is Isaiah I. After the initial words of the haftarah, Chazon Yeshayahu — A vision of Isaiah, the entire Shabbos is named Shabbos Chazon.
The atmosphere of mourning deepens on the first day of Av. Traditionally, meat and wine disappear from the table. Washing and bathing are forbidden, except when it is directly a matter of health. Shade trees are not planted. (These prohibitions on trees and water seem almost calculated to intensify our experience of the sun's heat.)
Finally, just before Tisha B'Av itself, we eat a meal of mourning — lentils or hard — boiled eggs, traditionally eaten in a house of mourning, and some uncooked fruit or vegetables, perhaps a slice of bread dipped in ashes. And then begins the fast.
If the ninth falls on Shabbos, we postpone its observance until the next evening. This is clearly not just because it is a fast, for Yom Kippur is celebrated on Shabbos whenever the tenth of Tishri falls there. It is instead because this day is utterly different from Yom Kippur, the Joyful Fast. This is a day of deep mourning.
Beginning at sundown, we do not eat or drink at all; we do not wear leather, wash ourselves, anoint our skin or hair with oils or perfumes; we do not make love. And we go far beyond these prohibitions, which are the same as those for the joyful Fast of Yom Kippur. We adhere to the traditional mourning customs because we feel almost like mourners, those whose dead have just been buried and who are just beginning to pray again, but sadly; who can share their grief with others, but not greet them; who cannot bear to look in a flattering mirror or sit on a comfortable chair. We study only sad and painful passages of the Bible and Talmud: the Book of Lamentations, Job, the sad parts of Jeremiah's prophecies; and commentaries on them.
We gather in the evening to a congregation of mourners. We do not greet each other as we enter. The Ark of the Torah is draped in black — or left open, empty, stripped of its holy scrolls. There are no bright lights — only candles casting a dim and flickering glow. In some Sephardic and Eastern congregations, even these candles are put out close to the end of the service, so that it ends in utter darkness. We find ourselves places to sit on the floor, or on low benches and cushions of the kind that mourners sit on.
We begin to chant the service in a mournful undertone. When we complete the murmured standing prayer (the Amidah), the reading of Eichah, Lamentations, begins — to a limping, broken melody. In Chapter III the melody shifts to a more agonized howl — in keeping with the shift in content from public mourning to personal grief.
When Eichah is finished, kinot (dirges) — are chanted that were written in many of the later periods of anti-Jewish persecutions — from the Crusades, the Expulsion from Spain, pogroms in Eastern Europe, the Holocaust. Finally the service ends with Alenu, the homage to the King of Kings Who will someday be acknowledged through all the earth; Mourner's Kaddish, which on this yahrtzeit day of the defenders of the Temple may include us all; and perhaps with the singing of Ani Ma'amin, the song that looks forward — wistfully — to the coming of Messiah.
Finally we leave, perhaps with a hug or a handclasp but without a word of farewell, without Shalom Aleichem — again as if we were all mourners, there is a death in every family.
The next morning we gather again. We do not wear tallis and t'fillin, the prayer shawls and leather straps and boxes — not out of the joy that makes them unnecessary on Shabbos and festivals, but out of a sadness and anger that make them unbearable. We read from the Torah the portion of Deuteronomy 4:24 -40 that prophesies the Destruction, and the Prophetic portion is from Jeremiah 8:13 — 9:23.
In some congregations the person called up to read the Torah says the broken blessing "Baruch dayan emet — Blessed be the Truthful Judge" — the blessing said upon hearing of a death. In some, the congregants sprinkle ashes on their heads. Again we read Eichah and again we chant kinot. Although there is no outright prohibition on work, some Jews follow the advice of Rabbi Akiba: "Anyone who works on Tisha B'Av will never see from that work any sign of blessing."
When we gather again in the late afternoon for the mincha service, the atmosphere has changed. For now the tradition comes to the fore that on this day of our deepest sadness, Messiah will be born and our greatest joy be celebrated. Now, having plunged ourselves into — and through — the deepest gloom, we are able to experience the first sense of joyful renewal. So — for the only time in all the year — we put on the tallit and t'fillin in the afternoon. In some Sephardic and Eastern communities, women put on perfume to welcome King Messiah.
We begin to sense God's answer to the outcry at the end of Eichah — "Hashivenu adonai eylecha, v'nashuvah; chadesh y~menu k'kedem — Turn us around, Lord — turn us to You and we will be returned. Make new our days, as they were long ago."
After sundown, we break the fast together, wash our faces, and then go outside to do the joyful service of kiddush levana — hallowing the moon. There are Messianic overtones to this service, which echo the tradition that in the days of Messiah the moon will be restored to equality with the sun — perhaps a hint that women, long identified with the moon, will take on an equal rank with men in the religious sphere. Kiddush levana may be done at any time the crescent moon is visible during the first half of any month, but in Av most communities have a strong tradition to connect it with the end of Tisha B'Av.
In Israel, especially since 1967 when it again became possible for Jews to visit the ancient site of the Temple, new customs have emerged for Tisha B'Av. One is that hundreds of congregations come to the Wailing Wall itself — the only remaining portion of the fortified retaining walls built by King Herod around the Temple Mount — to pray and chant the Tisha B'Av services. Another is that groups of Israelis take Tisha B'Av hikes around the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, and others visit the archeological sites where the ancient approaches to the Temple are being uncovered.
The mood of most of Tisha B'Av is too mournful to admit of music. But in the atmosphere of Messianic hope and determined self-renewal with which the day ends, three songs (the first of them from Eichah, the Book of Lamentations) do seem appropriate. The first two are somewhat plaintive in tone, the third joyous and rousing.
Chadesh, chadesh, yamenu k'kedem.
Help us turn to You, Lord, and we will return,
Renew our days as of old.
Ani ma'amin, ani ma'amin ani ma'amin
b'viat ha'mashiach ani ma'amin.
V'af al pi sheh'yitma'meyah
Im kol zeh ani ma'amin.
I affirm, I affirm,
I affirm with a full and firm belief
The coming of Messiah;
And though he tarry,
despite all that I affirm.
Achakeh lo, achakeh lo, achakeh lo
B'chol yom sheh'yavo
V'af al pi sheh 'yitma'meyah,
Im kol zeh achakeh lo!
Achakeh to b'chol yom sheh'yavo.
I will wait for him;
Every day while he is coming,
Despite all that 1 will
await his coming.
THE SEVEN WEEKS OF COMFORT
The redemptive response to Tisha B'Av continues after the day itself. While the Second Temple still stood, there was a celebration that was observed just six days later. This was the celebration of Tu B'Av — the fifteenth of Av, at the full moon, exactly six months after Tu B'Shvat, the New Year of Trees.
On this day, all the people brought firewood as an offering for the altar — and they celebrated by burning bonfires and torches. It was considered the last day on which wood for the Temple could be chopped, because thereafter the sun would no longer be hot enough to dry the wood. It therefore also represented the turning point of the sun's heat from scorching to bearable — a first hint of the revivifying autumn, just as Tu B'Shvat (exactly six months distant) was the first hint of spring.
On that day the maidens of Jerusalem lent each other white dresses — so that even if some of them had none to wear, no one would have to be ashamed of her poverty — and went out to dance and sing in the vineyards, calling out to the young men, "Lift up your eyes and see whom you choose for yourself."
The second way in which the redemptive process that begins on Tisha B'Av afternoon is continued and enriched is in the series of following Shabbosim. The Shabbos immediately following Tisha B'Av is called Shabbos Nachamu — the Shabbos of Comforting — after the beginning of the Prophetic passage (Isaiah 11:1 — 26) that is read, "Nachamu, nachamu, ami — Comfort you, comfort you, my people." It is the first of seven Shabbosim of comforting haftarahs that climb from the depths of Tisha B'Av to the renewal of Rosh Hashanah. All of them prophesy the redemption of Israel, its restoration to the Land, and the coming of the days of peace and justice.
These seven Shabbosim echo, in a very different key, the seven weeks of the omer that must be counted for the Jewish people to move from the liberation of Pesach to the revelation of 8havuot. They echo also, at a different tempo, the moment on Simchat Torah when we shift from reading the end of the Torah — the death of Moses — to reading the beginning — the creation of the world.
Here it takes us seven weeks to move from the deathday of the whole people to the birthday of the human race. In these seven weeks we complete the circle of the year, moving from the burning sun of summer to the first cool breeze of autumn. From the hot and thirsty fast of Tisha B'Av to the wellsprings of Hagar and Abraham, and our own visit to the river for Tashlich. We complete the circle, from exhaustion to new life.
SOME NEW APPROACHES
Several major events of the past generation have raised fresh questions and new possibilities in regard to Tisha B'Av. Two of these are the Holocaust and the emergence of the State of Israel, including its assertion of sovereignty over Jerusalem. On the one hand, some have argued that the mourning for the six million murdered Jews of Europe should be intertwined with mourning for the Temple. On the other hand, some have urged that Tisha B'Av mourning be relaxed in light of the emergence of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel — even in the absence of the rebuilt Temple and the Messianic Age.
The Holocaust has had a considerable impact on forms of commemoration of Tisha B'Av. In Israel, large numbers of people wearing tennis shoes can be seen at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum and Study Center, on Tisha B'Av. The tennis shoes are the badge of those who are eschewing leather, part of the traditional observance of the fast because leather was a luxury.
In some American congregations, poems about the Holocaust — new kinot — have been incorporated in the service. In others, the liturgical drama by David Roskies called Nightwords: A Midrash on the Holocaust has been added to the service for Tisha B'Av night. (Nightwords is used in some congregations on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, and is described at greater length in the Yom Hashoah section of Chapter XI.)
For many congregations, however, there is a major problem in connecting the Holocaust with Tisha B'Av. The traditional Jewish outlook has been that for our sins the Temple was destroyed. Few Jews feel that this is true about the Holocaust. The tradition's demand that we be self-critical, that we accept responsibility for our own failures in order to learn how to act more responsibly — this has one meaning when we have power, as we did in the First and Second Commonwealths. But did we indeed have power over our own lives in Eastern Europe? For these reasons, the relationship of Tisha B'Av to the Holocaust is not yet settled.
In an age when large numbers of Jews and of other peoples have become refugees, it is possible to see both the explicit verbal content and the ritual practice of Tisha B'Av as ways of experiencing what it means to be a refugee. Hungry, thirsty, unwashed, exhausted in the heat of summer, without chairs to sit on or light to see by — survivors walking on the Death March to Babylon, to Rome. Reminding us how it is to be a refugee as the Pesach Seder reminds us how it is to be a slave — and to be free.
The emergence in the last century of a more personal and individual dimension to Judaism, responding to the individualism of modern civilization without totally surrendering to it, has also led to some new ways of experiencing Tisha B'Av. It can be seen as not only the zero point of Jewish peoplehood, but a representation of the zero point for individuals. It can be taken as the occasion for individuals to re — experience their own burning sense of the loss of love and meaning. To feel their own bellies bum with the grief of knowing how they themselves have acted so as to drive away their loved ones, send themselves into exile from their friends, shatter loving connection in the world. In some chavurot (participatory congregations or fellowships), time has been set aside after the reading of Eichah for individuals to focus on their own griefs, sometimes silently and sometimes to share with others in the community.
Finally, there is an aspect of Tisha B'Av that reaches out beyond the Jewish people. Since Tisha B'Av falls in late July or early August, it often comes close to or actually falls upon August 6 or August 9, the anniversaries in the Western calendar of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Several small synagogues and chavurot have treated this confluence of dates as an occasion to recognize the danger of world destruction. As the Temple symbolized the Presence of God on earth and its destruction sent God into exile, so the human race carries the Image of God within it — and the destruction of humankind would send God's Presence into exile from the earth. Ceremonial acts that have accompanied the recognition of this connection have included chanting (in English, but using the mournful broken melodies of Eichah) passages from books describing the sufferings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
On one occasion in 1981 when Tisha B'Av actually coincided with Nagasaki Day, the occasion was marked by a sizeable number of Jews who undertook a traditional observance of Tisha B'Av while being present near the White House and the Soviet Embassy — buildings symbolic of the nuclear super — powers.
GO AND STUDY
Morris Silverman and Hillel E. Silverman have compiled a booklet for Tishah B'Av Services (Prayer Book Press, Media Judaica, Bridgeport, CT.) See also The Authorized Kinot for the Ninth of Av, ed. by Abraham Rosenfeld (Labworth, London); Arato Osada, Children of the A-Bomb (Putnam); David Roskies, Nightwords (B'nai B'rith Hillel Foundations); and several Tisha B'Av poems useful for individual self-examination in Diane Levenberg, Out of the Desert (Doubleday).
See esp. Midrash Rabbah on Lamentations (Soncino) and Pesikta de Rab Kahana (Jewish Publication Soc. ), pp. 272 — 285 for some powerful commentaries on the Destruction.
AFTERWORD AND FOREWORD
Tisha B'Av is the last link in the circle of the year — the link that moves from exhaustion to renewal. It is also the link in the history of the Jewish people that moves from disaster to renewal — from the disaster of the Destruction of the Temple to the renewal that was the Talmud, the beginning of the whole period of rabbinic Jewish thought.
And so Tisha B'Av may be for us today the model for how to move from our own disaster to our own renewal — from the disaster of the decline of Jewish tradition in the face of modern thought, and the disaster of the Holocaust, to the next great renewal of the Jewish people and of Torah. The great cycle of the Jewish year is a model, a metaphor, of the great cycle of life — and of the life of the Jewish people. Over and over, we move from birth to maturity to fulfillment to what seems to be a death — but is really the seed of a new birth, a new life. So it seems fitting to end this book with a beginning — to see that Tisha B'Av can teach us how to make a new beginning.
When the Holy Temple was destroyed, the Jewish people could have given up. Look at the Book of Leviticus. At a surface reading it seems clear enough: without the Temple and its sacrifices, there is no touch with God. But the rabbis did not let the Torah come to nought. Instead, they did midrash: that is, they searched within the Torah text for deeper meaning, for words that would speak to a day when sacrificial animals could not be offered up. Study and prayer, they concluded, were a deeper sacrifice, a fuller contact. They found within the tradition a way to transcend the tradition. We all have died, we all have found new life.
Or the rabbis could have given up another way — by keeping on. They could have found a new place for the sacrifices. They could have preserved a Biblical remnant and rejected all the elements of Hellenism. Instead, they absorbed the best of Hellenism and then — as who they newly were — went back to wrestle with the Torah. Out of that wrestling sprang new Torah truths and a gigantic new interpretation of the Torah: Talmud and the whole rabbinic tradition.
But they did not see the Talmud as brand-new. They saw it as what they called the oral Torah, the spoken words that lay invisible between the lines of the written Torah, the words that Moses heard on Sinai and passed by word of mouth to all the generations. So for them the Talmud did not replace Torah; the Talmud was Torah. The new truths were old truths waiting to be unveiled when the time came.
Or the rabbis could have taken the Destruction of the Temple as a merely military fact:
"It was a building. It was burnt by an invading army. The Hellenists have gained in strength. Once before, when they called themselves `Greece,' they defiled the building. We raised an army and we threw them out. Then we rededicated the building. Now they call themselves 'Rome,' and they are stronger. This time they actually burned the building. We will rebuild it when we throw them out again."
They did not do that either. Instead they made the Destruction a cosmic fact: "The Shechinah, God's Presence in the world, has fled into exile. The world itself is shattered, alienated." We mourn on Tisha B'Av not a military defeat, but our deep alienation from the flow of life. And if our mourning can be deep enough, our tears flow free enough, then we can touch the flow again, pour our tears into the stream. Our alienation begins to end. Messiah is born.
From the darkness of our mourning comes the night vision, the dream, welling up from, our unconscious, of new life. From the blankness, empty white space that surrounds the letters of the Torah, from that fluidity and openness, comes new direction. It is not empty blankness, but white fire around the black fire of the letters. From the tiny crowns and thorns upon the letters — at once so precise and so meaningless — come whole worlds, whole worlds of meaning. The oral Torah.
The Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple, was a beit, a letter of the aleph — beit. It was the belt of B'reshit, "In the beginning," the letter that begins the Holy Torah.
But the Temple, the Beit HaMikdash, was no ordinary beit. It was no two-dimensional letter written down on parchment, but a four — dimensional letter. For the Holy Temple existed in three dimensions of space and also in the time — dimension, expressed through the sacrificial calendar of holy days.
When the Temple burned, when the beit went up in fire, the flames were crowns and thorns upon the letter: white flame from which sprang old — new Torah. When the Temple space stood empty, there was blankness. The rabbis turned the blankness into white fire, new Torah. On the supernal heights of Sinai, above the earthly heavens, how did Moses distinguish the forty days and forty nights? During the day God taught him written Torah: visible, definite, organized, chronological, and logical. At night a dreaming God taught a dreaming Moses oral Torah: invisible, fluid, anarchic, psychological. Dreamlike.
For centuries the oral Torah remained a Dream. But then the Holy Temple burned. On Tisha B'Av we became our own psychoanalysts, we did our own interpretation of dreams. We turned our Dream, our Nightmare, into our waking Life-Path. We turned what was fluid and dreamy into specifics: Halacha.
What Messiah was born that Tisha B'Av? On the day the Temple was destroyed, the Exile was born and the Talmud was born. One became the body and the other the soul of the old-new Jewish people.
Now, today, as earlier Jews were conquered by Hellenism, so we have been conquered by Modernism. Not only conquered from without, by physical force — but more important, conquered inwardly. Persuaded.
There are attractions, truths, in Modernism as there were in Hellenism. There are truths to science, industrialism, liberalism, socialism, nationalism. Their central truth is that the human race can master its destiny, master the world. But it is only a partial truth. We are persuaded — but not wholly. It is also true that acting with total mastery will destroy our dominion — and thus annul, annihilate, our mastery. Acting totally as masters will total the world.
Objectify Earth, she will objectify us.
Poison the world, she will poison us back.
So we have become Modernists who know another truth: that to be only Modernists will destroy the world and ourselves. We need God — given Torah: the knowledge that we do not own the world. God does. There must be limits. There must be cycles. There must be pauses — Shabbos and Jubilee.
So we need to wrestle with Torah as the rabbis wrestled with Torah. As they searched in the white flame for new understanding, so must we. As they plunged into the darkness and the blankness to grasp the oral Torah, so must we. As they turned the Destruction from a military or a cultural event into a cosmic event, so must we.
But not — as some theologians would have it — the cosmic event that ends the covenant between God and Israel. Instead, the cosmic event that demands we renew the covenant in some new way. Not Sinai, but the burning bush: the flame that marks both outcry and response.
How do we know this? Because in our generation, the victory of Modernism brought disaster, but not only disaster. The victory of Modernism took three forms: the disaster of the Holocaust, the blessing of the state of Israel, and the blessing of the free American Diaspora. These simultaneous upheavals of hope and hopelessness should signal us: human mastery is not utterly evil, not wholly good. The covenant is not utterly dead, not wholly alive. It all depends on us. It is we who will have to search for God. It is we who will have to find new Torah.
We can learn from Tisha B'Av what we can do.
Through Tisha B'Av, the rabbis simultaneously faced the death and celebrated the rebirth of the Biblical era. They did this not only by what they said of Tisha B'Av — that it was both a day of disaster and a day of extraordinary birth, Messiah's birth. It was also by doing Tisha B'Av. For by mourning the Temple with such sorrow, they were accepting the death of the whole Biblical pattern in which the Jewish people lived freely in its own land and sacrificed to God the products of that land in its own Holy Temple. Yet by the very act of mourning on Tisha B'Av the rabbis were incorporating the content and process of the Biblical era into something new. To mourn a death is always to assert a rebirth; the dead do not mourn.
What is born on this day? When the rabbis say Messiah is born on Tisha B'Av, one way to hear them is that hope is reborn. For they speak of Messiah's birth, not of fullness, not of the shattered world made whole again, but only of a birth, a beginning, a hope.
If we wish to learn from Tisha B'Av, we can face the "death" of the Talmudic era in its age-old form, its "old age" form. And by doing this we can preserve its seed, bring it to birth again.
If in the generation of the Temple's Destruction what was "born" was the Diaspora and the Talmud, then we must notice that in our own generation what has already been born is both the State of Israel and a free Diaspora. What was born in this generation is the new Jewish people who lives both in Diaspora and the Land of Israel, with political power and freedom in both places; a new Jewish people that is both secularist and religious.
What is yet to be born in this generation? A new path of Jewish life, a new dream — Torah that can transform our daily practice, that can preserve a seed from the Biblical era, preserve a seed from the Talmudic era, embody the new Jewish secularism, and go beyond them by continuing the Torah process.
If we wish to learn from Tisha B'Av we can read Eichah, the Book of Lamentations. We can read with joy the verse of Lamentations: "Chadesh yamenu k'kedem. Make new our days as of old." Make new the days of the year, as we circle back to Rosh Hashanah. Make new the generations of our people, as we circle forward to the Third Age of Jewish peoplehood. Not "Give us back the good old days," but "Make our days full of newness, as You did long ago."